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Mehbooba raises stakes with contest

- PDP leader pulls crowds, sights trained on state polls
Mehbooba Mufti salutes party workers at an election rally in Anantnag. File picture

The sky is overcast and the weather chilly but men and women are jostling for space to catch a glimpse of Mehbooba Mufti, the president of the Peoples Democratic Party, as her cavalcade hits the road in Danow Kandi Marg village, close to the edge of the Valley in its south.

Garlands and confetti fly as the 54-year-old single mother of two gets off her SUV to mount its bonnet and address a cheering crowd.

“This party (the ruling National Conference) dumped raishumari (right to self determination) for power in 1975 (referring to the Indira-Abdullah accord which brought Sheikh Abdullah to power at the expense of his separatist struggle).… It (NC) forced youths to pick up arms and stones. Today, it cannot guarantee even ration to people. This party is a story of broken promises only,” Mehbooba says.

Yeli yi Mufti (when Muftis will come to power),” cries out a man in the middle of Mehbooba’s road show. “Teli chali sakhti (the hardships will go),” the crowd roars in unison. The crowd swells as more slogans rent the air.

Men, not women, traditionally receive such rousing receptions in the Valley. But Mehbooba, the PDP nominee from Anantnag or South Kashmir, is a law graduate from Kashmir University who joined politics in the mid-1990s when most men did not dare.

“Mainstream” was the most hated word in the Valley, its flag-bearers the dreaded counter-insurgents backed by the government to crush militancy.

In 1996, she contested the Assembly election on a Congress ticket and won. Mehbooba has not lost since.

Three years later, she helped her father and former Union home minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed build a formidable challenge to Jammu and Kashmir’s grand old party, the National Conference.

But for her, Sayeed’s dream of wearing the crown of the state might have remained a dream. South Kashmir, a former National Conference stronghold, became a PDP bastion in 2002 with the party winning 10 of its 16 Assembly seats. With six more in north and central Kashmir, it helped bring her father to power in alliance with the Congress.

That explains how, in a male-dominated society, Mehbooba could succeed her father as the PDP president that year. Her brother Tassaduq’s apparent distaste for politics made the succession smooth.

Connecting with the people meant the otherwise trendy Mehbooba, whose two daughters are now in their twenties and studying abroad, had to wear an abhaya and a headscarf.

The party has also repeatedly crossed a line and projected itself as a disguised separatist group. The PDP is often accused of forging secret alliances with the militant Hizb-ul Mujahideen group and the separatist Jamaat-e-Islami to win elections, but Mehbooba dismisses the allegations as NC propaganda.

“On a single day, this party accuses the PDP of having alliances with the BJP, separatists, Hizb-ul Mujahideen and its chief, Syed Salah-u-Din.… It is a joke and nobody buys it,” she exclaims.

The fact remains that Jamaat sympathisers, who swear their allegiance to Hurriyat hawk Syed Ali Shah Geelani, have been key to the PDP’s success. The separatist group, whose rivalry with the NC runs deep, can win only a handful of seats on its own but their support to a group like the PDP could be lethal for the rivals.

Irfan Ahmad of Kulgam’s Gopalpora, a village sympathetic to the Jamaat, explains why he will vote this time, although he didn’t in 2009.

“Kashmir has gone through hell during the last six years of NC rule. Look at how many died in 2010 (summer agitation in which 120 youths were allegedly killed by security forces). The PDP has proved to be better…. Besides, Mehboobaji is personally contesting this time,” the man in his 40s said.

“I see it (the PDP) as an avatar of the MUF which had defeated the NC but couldn’t come to power.”

Jamaat was an important constituent of the Muslim United Front, an alliance of various Islamic groups, that fought the 1987 Assembly elections, which, it is widely believed, was rigged in favour of the NC-Congress alliance. Two years later, the rigged election became one of the reasons for the beginning of militancy.

The PDP had to lobby hard in 2002 for the inkpen and pot election symbol, once the emblem of the MUF, to recreate the charm of the 1987 elections, which it did.

In the 2002 and 2008 Assembly elections, many Jamaat supporters came out to vote in South Kashmir to help the PDP win. The party won the majority of the seats in South Kashmir on both occasions. But they appeared less enthusiastic in the 2009 parliamentary elections — the polling percentage dropped to 25 per cent — and became a major reason behind the PDP losing the seat.

This time, the stakes are higher as Mehbooba herself is contesting. Her eyes are fixed more on the Assembly elections scheduled later this year. Wresting Anantnag from the NC is a must but a lot will depend on the Jamaat sympathisers. The PDP MLAs — many are holding their seats since 2002 — also face some anti-incumbency, which could be another worry for the party.